When the first impact of the coronavirus started being felt in Europe, I looked up which Psalms were said for sick people according to Judaism. In the past year, through my work in poetry and Bible translation, I had found myself increasingly circling the Psalms and looking for a way in. “The last thing the world needs is another translation of the Psalms,” my wife remarked, and I was wont to agree: the first recorded English poetry, long before Beowulf, are odd translations of Psalms. But I kept looking at them, trying to figure out what exactly this curious edifice of one hundred and fifty outpourings of glee and desperation to the Lord could possibly mean.
The term “Psalms” derives from the ancient Greek translation Psalmoi, meaning “songs.” The Greek Septuagint and all the European translations that followed from it place this book of poems second of a group of poetic Bible books starting with Job and concluding with Proverbs. The Psalms were written in Hebrew reportedly by King David, who “knew how to play” and healed King Saul with his music before starting a political career by killing Goliath. “Then David had rest from wars and dangers, and enjoyed perfect peace from that day on, and composed songs and praises (psalms) to God in different meters,” writes Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews, “and devised instruments and taught the Levites to thank God with them on the day called the Sabbath and other festivals.” Other ancient sources – Ben Sirah, the book of Maccabees, the Dead Sea scrolls of Qumran – concur with this account.
But there are difficulties with this attribution, because some of the Psalms bear the names of figures predating David, such as Moses – some even purport to go back as far as Adam – and some post-date him, like his son Solomon. To deal with these oddities, the Jewish tradition holds that ten righteous men recited the book of Psalms, but it would bear the name of David, “the sweetest singer of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1). A not-so-religious Canadian poet friend of mine once remarked to me that she reads the Catholic Bible regularly but keeps coming back to the Psalms because that is where you hear a human voice at the other end.
A friend once remarked to me that she keeps coming back to the Psalms because that is where you hear a human voice at the other end.
This human voice – the one understood to have healed Saul – how might it speak to this moment of suffering? I found on a Chabad site a list of thirty-six Psalms that “it is customary to recite” for someone who is ill but no citation for where this list came from. Nevertheless I copied down the list and made a stab at one or two.
Then my curiosity got the better of me and I looked again for some reference to these thirty-six Psalms. A Yeshiva University page led me to a reference to a book called Gesher Hachaim (The Bridge of Life) and its author, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky. Chabad had suggested the saying of these Psalms was from “time immemorial,” but Tucazinsky was born in Belarus in 1871, moved to Jerusalem in 1882, and died there in 1955. He is virtually our contemporary. In 1952 he was awarded the Rav Kook prize by the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa for Torah Literature. Tel Aviv is the city of the flesh to Jerusalem’s city of the spirit. I can only imagine Rabbi Tucazinsky was well-regarded indeed for the city of Tel Aviv to want to recognize his writings. He is commonly referred to in the religious world not by his name but by that title of his most famous book, Gesher Hachaim, which it turns out is considered one of the final authorities on Jewish laws of mourning.
I opened it to the introductory section on the laws of visiting the sick. There he writes that “the commandment of visiting the sick is two-fold,” both “fulfilling the needs of the sick person” and “the prayer you pray over them. The commandment of visiting the sick is one of body and soul, the body – by serving and taking pains for the needs of the sick person, and the soul – to pray for them.” He emphasizes: “And anyone who visited the sick not for his benefit and didn’t pray for him – has not fulfilled the commandment of visiting the sick.”
This observation struck me quite forcibly. If you consult the standard work of Jewish law, the 1563 Shulchan Aruch, you’ll find the source of his language about how essential prayer is to the sick person and some suggestions of verses to say, but Tucazinsky’s is a sharpening of that perspective. “The patient who calls the physician should know that the physician is only the messenger of the Physician of all flesh, who gave him permission to perform his errand,” he goes on, and names eighteen Psalms to say “when praying in a synagogue or some other location for the sick person (not in their presence)”: 2, 13, 22, 25, 30, 32, 38, 69, 88, 102, 103, 107, 116, 118, 142, 143, and 130.
That is a commandment you could fulfil in a matter of minutes and feel you had done something for somebody you otherwise couldn’t reach.
He suggests a further eighteen Psalms to say should you wish to. But the initial list is only of eighteen, the rest a matter of your own conscience. It is much less demanding of people to specify just eighteen Psalms they should say. That is a commandment you could fulfil in a matter of minutes and feel you had done something for somebody you otherwise couldn’t reach.
I had finally found my source, and promptly took a stab at the first of a much shorter list: Psalm 2.
Why do the nations hullaballoo and races talk rot?
This very first line presents all the problems inherent in translating these poems. The question of tone, and the question of synonyms. Psalms persistently phrase things in parallels, asking a question about x and y when x and y are loosely translated into English as the same thing. So how do you treat x and y?
Then there is that question of tone. These are deeply personal poems apparently written in great anguish and ecstasy. How do we address the Lord nowadays if we are not using language that has been pre-processed by some religious organization? How do we use contemporary language without being glib or disposable, but avoiding the high-flown or sanctimonious? I had come up with a range of solutions to these problems when translating the Pentateuch, but the Psalms are so deeply personal and so opaque at times that it is like going from a walk in the park to a stumble through a dark wood. I had often compared my obscure midlife path to the sense of waking up in Dante’s wood, and here he was in this thicket, bumping into me again.
They fall in line, the kings of the earth and monarchs band as one
Against the Lord and His anointed one:
Who is this anointed one? Miles Coverdale, the sixteenth-century Christian who was the first to translate a number of these poems into English from the original, would have taken any such line as a reference to Jesus. I am translating as a modern Jew who is notionally still expecting the messiah; not only that, but I have seen the State of Israel rise out of the ashes of mid-twentieth-century Jewry with not a messiah in sight. Tucazinsky had seen modern Israel founded before his very eyes and died before it was a decade old. What anointed one could he have imagined this line could possibly be referring to? It certainly wasn’t Ben Gurion in his new parliament building in Jerusalem.
Let us cut off our reins and throw off our restraints
He who sits in heaven laughs – the Lord ridicules them.
Then He will address them in His wrath and in His rage sweep them away.
But I anointed my own King and Zion my sacred mountain.
Again, in my mind’s eye I see the modern city of Jerusalem as it expands ever outward with its buildings of Housing Ministry–regulated Jerusalem white stone, not the ancient Temple Mount. Even the Jerusalem of Tucazinsky’s early twentieth century, though smaller and shabbier and divided in 1948, would have seemed a far cry from any sacred mountain. Who would he have seen swept away? Not the British who had only just left the country, certainly not any of the Arab neighboring countries that had barely been fought to a standstill. The nearest people Tucazinsky might have thought to be the people throwing off the reins and restraints were his own non-religious Jewish countrymen, those very hedonists in Tel Aviv-Jaffa who gave him a prize for his Torah writings.
But I soon put such questions out of my mind. Translating the Psalms requires a curious doublethink. You need to find contemporary equivalents for language, without being bound either to the source period or the contemporary period. A sort of timeless dialogue with the Almighty in a language he did not speak then and certainly does not speak now. An occasional lapse into the vernacular is possible, but who is talking to whom and about what is finally all but unanswerable.
I come to speak into law: The Lord said to me, You are my son This very day I bore you:
Ask and I’ll give you nations as your estate make your inheritance the ends of the earth
You’ll herd them with a rod of iron like handicraft vessels shatter them to bits.
But now kings grow wise take counsel chieftains of the land:
Worship the Lord in awe and rejoice in your trembling:
Kiss the son or He’ll rage and you’ll lose the way home.
For His wrath blazes all at once lucky are those who sit in his shade.
What is this poem meant to do for a sick person, aside from that last line, which suggests the suffering patient may be fortunate if he or she takes comfort in the Lord? Is that why this poem is on that list? Rabbi Tucazinsky isn’t answering, and his book didn’t give a source for his list, though he gave plenty of sources for his view that praying for the sick is an obligation.
After his death, the city of Jerusalem named a street in one of the burgeoning new religious neighborhoods, Mekor Baruch, after his book. Can you imagine an obscure American religious leader having a street named after him, let alone one of his books, let alone a book about mourning? I daresay there are streets named after Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Brigham Young, even Billy Graham – but I never heard of a “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” avenue in Georgetown.
As I began translating the Psalms I got a call from the religious judge of Leeds, Dayan Refson, who also founded the day school I take my children to on the train. He was asking if I would do an hour’s work for him as kosher supervisor in the one kosher butcher's of Leeds. This was an hour’s work on Purim (which this year fell on March 9), the day when everybody gets drunk, and you may be surprised to hear not too many people were taking him up on his offer. The regular supervisor had to mind the communal meal at the synagogue down the road. Dayan Refson also asked if my family and I would like to join him and his wife for the festive meal of Purim. I asked if it was all right for my son to come because he had caught a cold and people were starting to get jumpy about the virus. His wife said that was fine; in fact, her husband also had a cold and she was telling people if they didn’t want to come eat with them that was their choice. I went and supervised for an hour, the kosher butchers were very grateful, and I got a lift to Dayan Refson’s house for the feast.
I sat next to him at dinner. His voice was an octave lower than usual and he was a little subdued. Somebody made a speech about how this virus was very contagious but not as deadly as SARS, and how nobody around that table would die because today’s seventy-year-olds were not the elderly of yesteryear. I said goodbye to Dayan Refson and he shook my hand. That night I translated the passage from Gesher Hachaim about which Psalms to say for a sick person.
The following week I was asked to replace the kosher supervisor in the butcher’s shop for two days. Then three. The usual supervisor had a cold and his usual replacement didn’t want to come in that day. I went in and supervised, each day the shop staff getting more nervous. They had started to wear surgical masks as they stood behind the till.
That Sunday I had a call telling me to come in for three days a week until further notice. The second supervisor had quit at his wife’s request. She was too worried. The first supervisor was not allowed to come back after his cold because as a seventy-year-old diabetic he was at too high a risk. Then a lockdown was declared, all non-essential businesses closed. But the kosher butcher was an essential service, so I prepared to continue traveling in on the now-empty trains. I got up on Monday morning and opened my email to learn that Dayan Refson had passed away in the night. No mention of symptoms or cause of death. There would be no seven days of mourning, no opportunity to comfort his wife. The synagogues had closed the previous week. Funerals were limited in size. Nobody was visiting anybody.
I kept translating Psalms, on the train, in and out of Leeds, with nobody around me, going to supervise the kosher butcher. I found myself stacking the shelves with biscuits, with pasta, anything, to comfort the shell-shocked Jews of Leeds who were staggering in from having gone to their supermarket and found the shelves emptied by panicked buyers. The least I could do as a communal service was give them a full shelf to look at when they came in the door. As soon as the butchers could throw kosher packs of meat on the shelf they were being grabbed off and shelves were bare again.
Last week I was asked not to stay in the shop but to keep to myself upstairs in the offices. To come down once an hour and make sure everything was fine, but not to expose myself to risk of infection from the public. Tape was put down on the floor to mark two-meter distances from the paying counter. Plastic screens were hung in front of the cashiers. I came in and translated Psalms upstairs.
One night I greeted the owner of the shop as he planned to put stronger screens in front of the cashiers. I went in and translated more Psalms, and called another rabbi to ask him about the butchers eating bread in the corner of the kitchen. He called to tell the butchers not to eat inside. Then he called me back ten minutes later. The owner of the shop had gone into self-isolation and did not want me supervising the store anymore, worried about what I was exposed to on the train. I told the rabbi the train was empty, but he said there was nothing he could do. I took my apron and my volume of Psalms, bought kosher meat for Passover, and said goodbye to the butchers.
The only response I have come up with to the constant thought of death has been translating these cries from another time and place.
It is too late to pray for Dayan Refson with these Psalms or any others. But aside from stacking the shelves with pasta, the only response I have come up with to the constant thought of death has been translating these cries from another time and place for him to pay attention. As it says most eloquently in Psalm 69:
Rescue me God because the waters have come for my life
I’m drowned in the mulch of the depths and there’s no place left to stand.